A few nights ago I watched the 1968 documentary In the Year of the Pig by Emile de Antonio that recounts the story of the Vietnam war up to that year. It uses archival footage and since de Antonio is French, the documentary understandably spends more time on the French antecedents to US involvement than American documentaries usually do. For those of us who remember the history of that brutal war, the key landmarks are the 1954 Geneva accords, the 1956 defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk in 1963, the 1968 Tet offensive, and the final defeat of the US in 1975.
But in watching the documentary, I was reminded of a key person who dominated the news during the war but has been largely forgotten now and that was Tran Le Xuan, who was better known throughout the world as Madame Nhu. She was the wife of Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was the brother of Ngo Dinh Diem who became president of South Vietnam in a fraudulent election in 1955. The Nhus were the real power in the government, with Diem being a weak figure easily cowed and manipulated by them. The Nhus lived in the presidential palace and since Diem never married, the outspoken Catholic Madame Nhu served as the de facto first lady and pushed through laws outlawing abortion, adultery, divorce, contraceptives, dance halls, beauty pageants, boxing matches, and animal fighting, and closed down brothels and opium dens.
Madame Nhu had very strong views and no inhibitions whatsoever about expressing them. The family was part of the Catholic minority in a majority Buddhist country but that did not stop her from speaking scornfully about Buddhists. In fact, there was no situation so bad that she could not make worse with her incendiary remarks. Since she was young, very attractive, wore tight-fitting and somewhat revealing clothing in a conservative country, and could be counted upon to say the most outrageous things, the media covered her constantly. She was ‘good copy’ as they say in the business, much to the chagrin of the US government that was trying to keep her under wraps to prevent her inflaming an already extremely difficult situation. She was willing to harshly attack the US if they even slightly criticized her or did not provide everything the Nhus and Diem asked for, even though the Diem government would have collapsed immediately without US support.
Madame Nhu’s Wikipedia page gives a good account of her life that is well worth reading for those who have never heard of this person. (Her life story, with her Marie Antoinette-styled insouciance, would make for a good, albeit, tragic, film.) She was so outrageous that even her parents (her father was South Vietnam’s ambassador to the US and her mother was South Vietnam’s observer at the United Nations) disowned her. Here are some examples of the Nhus in action.
Madame Nhu publicly mocked Thích Quang Duc, who performed a self-immolation on 11 June 1963 in a crowded Saigon street to protest against the shooting of Buddhists by Diem’s regime. She labelled it a “barbecue” and stated, “Let them burn and we shall clap our hands.” She further offered to provide more fuel and matches for the Buddhists, noting the “barbecuing” was not “self-sufficient” because “imported gasoline” was used.
Madame Nhu claimed Buddhist leader Thích Trí Quang “spoke for many intellectuals who had repeatedly ridiculed her.”
Following the pagoda raids, Trí Quang was given asylum at the U.S. Embassy after Ngo Dinh Nhu’s plans to assassinate him were uncovered. Madame Nhu gave a media interview in which she called on government troops to invade the American embassy and capture Thích Trí Quang and some other monks who were staying there, saying that the government must arrest “all key Buddhists”. In a media interview, her husband responded to his parents-in-law by vowing to kill his father-in-law, claiming his wife would participate. He said “I will have his head cut off. I will hang him in the center of a square and let him dangle there. My wife will make the knot on the rope because she is proud of being a Vietnamese and she is a good patriot.”
In 1963, Madame Nhu visited the US on a speaking tour, much to the consternation of the US government that was never sure what inflammatory thing she would say next.
Madame Nhu’s comments were such that President John F. Kennedy became personally concerned. He asked his advisers to find means of having Diem gag her. McGeorge Bundy thought her comments were so damaging that it would only be acceptable for Ngo Dinh Diem to remain in power if she were out of the picture. The National Security Council deemed her a threat to U.S. security, and told the then United States Ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. to seek her permanent removal from South Vietnam.
There was also speculation that she could turn up at the United Nations in New York and embarrass South Vietnam and the U.S. Bundy said in a meeting that “this was the first time the world had been faced with collective madness in a ruling family since the days of the czars” and her comments provoked much debate on how to get Diem to silence her.
While she was in the US, Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu were murdered in 1963 in a military coup that was supported by the US. After that there was a dizzying series of military coups that made it difficult to keep track of who was in power until yet another general Nguyen Van Thieu became president in 1967 and remained so until just ten days before the final collapse of South Vietnam.
Madame Nhu spent the rest of her life in exile in Europe, mostly in Paris. In 1986, her younger brother was charged in the strangling death of her parents in Washington, DC.
While I was writing this, I remembered a bit of dark humor from the time just after the Nhus were deposed from power that went “No Nhus is good news”.